7 Key Nutrients for the Vegetarian Child

7 Key Nutrients for the Vegetarian Child

As parents, we worry when our kids don’t finish their dinner or skip a meal. We worry if they are eating enough fruits and vegetables. Parents of children who follow a vegetarian diet are no different and may even have more worries due to a diet that is different than the norm. All parents want to make sure their child is getting the right foods to grow properly, so let’s go over the nutrients that are important for children who choose to exclude some types of animal protein.

Types of Vegetarian Diets

First off, not all vegetarian diets are the same. Different types of vegetarian diets exclude different foods.

  • Lacto-ovo vegetarians do not eat animal flesh, but do include eggs and dairy products in their meals.
  • Pescetarian vegetarians eat fish, but no other animal flesh.
  • Vegans exclude all foods of animal origins.

If we think about each of these diet choices in terms of nutrition, there are specific nutrients that can become a concern depending on which foods are excluded from the diet. Each diet may lack different nutrients because of the types of foods that are excluded. Specifically, because vegan diets exclude all animal products, those are the diets that most carefully need to be monitored to ensure that children receive the nutrition they need to grow and develop.

Nutrient Needs for Kids

Just like all vegetarian diets are not the same, all children are not the same.

Depending on their age and stage of growth, their nutrition needs are different. Of all children, infants and toddlers have the highest growth rates.

Infants get most of their nutrition from breastmilk or formula. Once they have started to consume solids, most often the diet includes iron-fortified cereal, which meets many of the nutritional concerns related to vegetarian diets.

The nutritional concerns of a toddler are somewhat different. Toddlers, or 1-4 years old, have higher nutritional needs simply because it’s a time of rapid growth. Because of this time of increased growth, it is especially important that they get enough of these essential nutrients.

Another important consideration is that the large volume of grains, fruits, and vegetables can be bulky and fill a toddler’s small stomach very quickly. Because of this, they often get full quickly. Toddlers need high-calorie meals and snacks every few hours, rather than just three meals each day. Supplements for a vegetarian child can have an important role during this time of rapid growth.

In this next section, we will go over some of the most common nutrient concerns for those who choose a vegetarian or vegan diet

Protein for Vegetarian Children

Let’s start with protein. While children do not need to consume high protein diets, they do need sufficient protein to be able to continue to grow at a healthy rate.

Protein is especially important for growth since proteins are the building blocks for healthy muscles.

Some great protein sources for a child on a vegan diet include:

  • soy-based products like soy milk, tofu, and edamame
  • legumes including beans, lentils, and peas
  • nuts, nut, and seed butters

These days there is a large variety of non-animal protein sources available at your local grocery store. It takes some branching out and experimenting to find the protein sources that your child enjoys and will consume on a regular basis.

Toddlers need around one gram of protein for every kilogram of body weight (1 kilogram = 2.2 pounds). So a 3-year-old child weighing 30 pounds, or 13.6 kilograms, would need about 15 grams of protein each day.

Fat for Vegetarian Children

Next up is fat. Usually, when we talk about fat in children’s diets we are talking about how to make sure they aren’t getting too much. But with children on vegan diets, sometimes they aren’t getting enough fat to meet their needs. Fats are essential for building healthy nerve and brain tissue as well as providing energy for your growing child.

There are many fantastic fat sources that come from plants. Some of these include avocados, olives, nuts, olive, and other oils. These plant fats are full of unsaturated fats, which are beneficial in the body.

While there isn’t a specific recommendation for the amount of fat they need each day, toddlers should be getting 30 to 35 percent of their total calories from fat.

Vitamin B12 for Vegetarian Children

Another key nutrient that is not found in high amounts in a vegetarian diet is Vitamin B12. This vitamin is only found in animal sources or fortified foods (commercial cereals, fortified soy, and rice milks, etc). Individuals choosing to eat a vegan diet must be particularly vigilant to include enough of this necessary vitamin. Vitamin B12 is responsible for several key reactions in the body, including building healthy red blood cells.

To find fortified food sources of Vitamin B12, look for cyanocobalamin or B12 on food labels. Children under 4 years of age need three or more micrograms per day. If they cannot get this amount from fortified foods, they will need to take a supplement to meet that need.

Vitamin D for Vegetarian Children

Another important vitamin that is important for children on vegetarian diets is Vitamin D. Most other children get Vitamin D from fortified cow’s milk. And of course all children can get this vitamin from being outdoors; Vitamin D is often nicknamed the “sunshine vitamin” because our bodies can make this vitamin when our skin is exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D is important for keeping many parts of our bodies healthy, including our bones.

Often non-dairy milks are fortified with Vitamin D. Supplements are another way children can get enough Vitamin D daily. Children under 4 years of age need to get at least 400 International Units of Vitamin D each day.

Calcium for Vegetarian Children

Along with Vitamin D, calcium is also another nutrient that children who are not consuming dairy products are at risk of deficiency. Though dairy products generally contain the highest amount of calcium per serving there are other food sources of calcium. Some non-dairy sources of calcium include:

  • tofu
  • almonds
  • soybeans
  • leafy greens
  • potatoes

Children under 4 need 800 milligrams of calcium daily. Both calcium and Vitamin D are essential for growing strong, healthy bones.

Iron for Vegetarian Children

Another essential nutrient that is missing in many vegetarian diets is iron. Some of the best food sources of iron are animal products, so it takes some planning to get enough iron from non-animal sources.

A few great options for non-animal sources of iron are:

  • oats,
  • whole wheat products,
  • beans,
  • cooked green leafy veggies.

When eating these non-animal sources of iron, one important thing to understand is that Vitamin C can help the body absorb some of these non-animal sources of iron. It’s best to pair these non-animal sources of iron with foods that are high in vitamin C; think salsa (tomatoes are a good source of vitamin C) and refried beans.

Iron is essential for healthy blood cells, and when we don’t get enough, we can become anemic. Toddlers need 10 milligrams each day.

Zinc for Vegetarian Children

And last but not least, zinc is an important nutrient that often gets left behind when consuming a vegetarian diet. Zinc is important for our body’s immune system, bones, and overall growth.

Like the other nutrients discussed, animal products are usually where most people get the zinc they need. But there are other non-animal sources of zinc. Some of them include:

  • wheat germ
  • nuts
  • fortified cereals
  • dried beans
  • pumpkin seeds

Toddlers need 8 milligrams of zinc daily.

Overview of Nutrients for Vegetarian Children

We’ve been over a lot of numbers and figures, so the following chart might be helpful as you start planning your child’s vegetarian diet.

Nutrient

Needs for children ages 1-4

Needs for children over 4

Protein

1.1 gram/kilogram of body weight

0.95 gram/kilogram of body weight

Fat

30-40% of calories

25-35% of calories

Vitamin B12

3 micrograms

6 micrograms

Vitamin D

400 IU

400 IU

Calcium

800 milligrams

1,000 milligrams

Iron

10 milligrams

18 milligrams

Zinc

8 milligrams

15 milligrams

Overall, children can be healthy and thrive on a vegetarian diet, but it does take more planning to make sure they are getting the proper amount of nutrients. It also takes finding kid-friendly recipes to help your child enjoy their vegetarian lifestyle. If you have questions or concerns about your child’s diet, don’t hesitate to contact a dietitian to help.

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